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Apple Gets Into (App) Search

By - February 26, 2012

It took longer than I thought it would, but it’s finally happened. Apple’s admitted that it needs real search to bring it’s tangled app universe to heel, and purchased Chomp, a leading third-party app review and search service.

Nearly two years ago I wrote this piece:  Apple Won’t Build a (Web) Search Engine. From it:

…but it will build the equivalent of an app search engine. It’s crazy not to. In fact, it has to. It already has app discovery via the iTunes store, but it’s terrible, with no signal that gives reliable results based on accrued intent.

What Apple needs is a search engine that “crawls” apps, app content, and app usage data, then surfaces recommendations as well as content . To do this, mobile apps will need to make their content available for Apple to crawl. And why wouldn’t you if you’re Yelp, for example? Or Facebook, for that matter? An index of apps+social signal+app content would be quite compelling.

What Apple will NOT do is crawl the entire web.

I still think that last sentence will remain true. It’s my hope that Apple continues to develop Chomp and help “real search” – the kind I describe above, to happen in iOS.

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WTF’s With the Silence, Battelle?

By - February 22, 2012

As you grow older, you learn a few things. One of them is to actually take the time you’ve alloted for vacation. So while the whole Google/Microsoft/Apple privacy who-haa is going down this week, as are any number of other noteworthy news stories, I’m going to stay on the sidelines and focus on skiing with my family. Back at it, to the extent I can be at it while attending TED, next week.

There’s much to be said, for sure. But time only makes the saying of it that much better, I believe.

A Sad State of Internet Affairs: The Journal on Google, Apple, and “Privacy”

By - February 16, 2012

The news alert from the Wall St. Journal hit my phone about an hour ago, pulling me away from tasting “Texas Bourbon” in San Antonio to sit down and grok this headline: Google’s iPhone Tracking.

Now, the headline certainly is attention-grabbing, but the news alert email had a more sinister headline: “Google Circumvented Web-Privacy Safeguards.”

Wow! What’s going on here?

Turns out, no one looks good in this story, but certainly the Journal feels like they’ve got Google in a “gotcha” moment. As usual, I think there’s a lot more to the story, and while I’m Thinking Out Loud right now, and pretty sure there’s a lot more than I can currently grok, there’s something I just gotta say.

First, the details.  Here’s the lead in the Journal’s story, which requires a login/registration:

Google Inc. and other advertising companies have been bypassing the privacy settings of millions of people using Apple Inc.’s Web browser on their iPhones and computers—tracking the Web-browsing habits of people who intended for that kind of monitoring to be blocked.”

Now, from what I can tell, the first part of that story is true – Google and many others have figured out ways to get around Apple’s default settings on Safari in iOS – the only browser that comes with iOS, a browser that, in my experience, has never asked me what kind of privacy settings I wanted, nor did it ask if I wanted to share my data with anyone else (I do, it turns out, for any number of perfectly good reasons). Apple assumes that I agree with Apple’s point of view on “privacy,” which, I must say, is ridiculous on its face, because the idea of a large corporation (Apple is the largest, in fact) determining in advance what I might want to do with my data is pretty much the opposite of “privacy.”

Then again, Apple decided I hated Flash, too, so I shouldn’t be that surprised, right?

But to the point, Google circumvented Safari’s default settings by using some trickery described in this WSJ blog post, which reports the main reason Google did what it did was so that it could know if a user was a Google+ member, and if so (or even if not so), it could show that user Google+ enhanced ads via AdSense.

In short, Apple’s mobile version of Safari broke with common web practice,  and as a result, it broke Google’s normal approach to engaging with consumers. Was Google’s “normal approach” wrong? Well, I suppose that’s a debate worth having – it’s currently standard practice and the backbone of the entire web advertising ecosystem –  but the Journal doesn’t bother to go into those details. One can debate whether setting cookies should happen by default – but the fact is, that’s how it’s done on the open web.

The Journal article does later acknowledge, though not in a way that a reasonable reader would interpret as meaningful, that the mobile version of Safari has “default” (ie not user activated) settings that prevent Google and others (like ad giant WPP) to track user behavior the way they do on the “normal” Web. That’s a far cry from the Journal’s lead paragraph, which again, states Google bypassed the “the privacy settings of millions of people.” So when is a privacy setting really a privacy setting, I wonder? When Apple makes it so?

Since this story has broken, Google has discontinued its practice, making it look even worse, of course.

But let’s step back a second here and ask: why do you think Apple has made it impossible for advertising-driven companies like Google to execute what are industry standard practices on the open web (dropping cookies and tracking behavior so as to provide relevant services and advertising)? Do you think it’s because Apple cares deeply about your privacy?

Really?

Or perhaps it’s because Apple considers anyone using iOS, even if they’re browsing the web, as “Apple’s customer,” and wants to throttle potential competitors, insuring that it’s impossible to access to “Apple’s” audiences using iOS in any sophisticated fashion? Might it be possible that Apple is using data as its weapon, dressed up in the PR friendly clothing of  “privacy protection” for users?

That’s at least a credible idea, I’d argue.

I don’t know, but when I bought an iPhone, I didn’t think I was singing up as an active recruit in Apple’s war on the open web. I just thought I was getting “the Internet in my pocket” – which was Apple’s initial marketing pitch for the device. What I didn’t realize was that it was “the Internet, as Apple wishes to understand it, in my pocket.”

It’d be nice if the Journal wasn’t so caught up in its own “privacy scoop” that it paused to wonder if perhaps Apple has an agenda here as well. I’m not arguing Google doesn’t have an agenda – it clearly does. I’m as saddened as the next guy about how Google has broken search in its relentless pursuit of beating Facebook, among others.

In this case, what Google and others have done sure sounds wrong – if you’ve going to resort to tricking a browser into offering up information designated by default as private, you need to somehow message the user and explain what’s going on. Then again, in the open web, you don’t have to – most browsers let you set cookies by default. In iOS within Safari, perhaps such messaging is technically impossible, I don’t know. But these shenanigans are predictable, given the dynamic of the current food fight between Google, Apple, Facebook, and others. It’s one more example of the sad state of the Internet given the war between the Internet Big Five. And it’s only going to get worse, before, I hope, it gets better again.

Now, here’s my caveat: I haven’t been able to do any reporting on this, given it’s 11 pm in Texas and I’ve got meetings in the morning. But I’m sure curious as to the real story here. I don’t think the sensational headlines from the Journal get to the core of it. I’ll depend on you, fair readers, to enlighten us all on what you think is really going on.

San Francisco In The Spring: Come To Signal

By - February 15, 2012

Over at the FM blog, I just posted the draft agenda for the first of five conferences I’ll be chairing as part of my day job at Federated Media. Signal San Francisco is a one-day event (March 21) focused on the theme of  integrating digital marketing across large platforms (what I’ve called “dependent web” properties) and the Independent Web. The two are deeply connected, as I’ve written here. As we explore that “interdependency,” we’ll also be talking about some of the most heated topics in media today: the role of mobile, the rise of brand-driven content, the impact of real-time bidded exchanges, and more.

Signal builds on the format I spent almost a decade crafting at the Web 2 Summit – the “high order bit,” or short, impactful presentation, as well as case studies and deeper-dive one-on-one interviews with industry leaders. Those include Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, Adam Bain, President of Revenue at Twitter, Neal Mohan, who leads Google’s ad products, and Ross Levinsohn, who runs Yahoo! Americas, among others.

Others represented include Instagram, AKQA, Babycenter, Intel, Tumblr, WordPress, ShareThis, Facebook, and many more. I hope you’ll consider registering (the earlybird expires next week), and joining me for what’s certain to be a great conversation.

The Ecstasy of Telegraphy

By - February 14, 2012

My research manager turned up this gem in the course of answering a question I had about the popular response to the introduction of the telegraph in the US (a moment that informs the working title of my next book). What I find fascinating is how the invention incited an innate religious response (this editorial from a local Albany, NY newspaper is in no way unique). The logic goes something like this: Mankind has invented something that pushes the boundaries of our comprehension – we are now doing something that once was understood to be the provenance only of God. Therefore, we must remind ourselves that this invention, while seeming to contradict the supreme powers of God, in fact only reinforces His position in our world. 

The logic may feel a bit tortured, but it’s consistent with a point I make every time I explain one of the core ideas of the book – that in the 200 years between the introduction of the telegraph (early 1840s) and when my children have kids of their own (roughly 30 years from now, or  early 2040s), mankind will have completed something of a pivot when it comes to our shared understanding of the relationship between technology and God. When Morse couldn’t decide what the first telegraph message should be, he settled on a Biblical quote quite consistent with the Albany Atlas and Argus’ editorial: What Hath God Wrought? The telegraph was such a massive shift in the possible, it was best to ascribe its power to God. Humans can’t handle this power.*

But in the intervening centuries, we’ve come to realize that God isn’t going to provide an operating manual for the power we’ve unlocked, and if we’re going to get our arms around it, it’s on us to do so. We can’t throw up our hands and hope for the best. We have to shoulder the responsibility of entering these new realms of power. That’s why I change Morse’s famous quote for my working title: What We Hath Wrought. Two centuries after that first electronic message pierced time and space, what will we have built?

That’s the question my book will explore, using the tools of anthropology and journalism, and a bit of luck along the way.

*Indeed, the story of Morse’s precursor Claude Chappe, the inventor of the “optical telegraph,” offers additional pathos to the narrative. Raised “in church service,” Chappe chose an entrepreneurial path, developing a series of signal towers across France in the late 1790s. His first test message declared a far more earthly intention: “If you succeed, you will bask in glory.” But Chappe died ingloriously: He threw himself down a well in despair at accusations his invention was stolen from the military. 

China Hacking: Here We Go

By - February 13, 2012

(image) Waaaay back in January of this year, in my annual predictions, I offered a conjecture that seemed pretty orthogonal to my usual focus:

“China will be caught spying on US corporations, especially tech and commodity companies. Somewhat oddly, no one will (seem to) care.”

Well, I just got this WSJ news alert, which reports:

Using seven passwords stolen from top Nortel executives, including the chief executive, the hackers—who appeared to be working in China—penetrated Nortel’s computers at least as far back as 2000 and over the years downloaded technical papers, research-and-development reports, business plans, employee emails and other documents.

The hackers also hid spying software so deeply within some employees’ computers that it took investigators years to realize the pervasiveness of the problem.

Now, before I trumpet my prognosticative abilities too loudly, let’s see if … anybody cares. At all. And if you’re wondering why I even bothered to make such a prediction, well, it’s because I think it’s going to prove important….eventually.

Nearly 90% of the World Uses Mobile Phones

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In the normal course of research for the book, I wondered how quickly mobile phone use got to the 1 billion mark. I figured we’re well past that number now, but I had no idea how far past it we’ve blown.Like, six times past it. We hit 1 billion in the year 2000, and never looked back.

According to the ITU, nearly 90% of people in the world use mobile phones. Holy. Cow. By comparison, just 35% of us are using the Internet. That is going to change, and fast. Everyone needs a new phone after some period of time. And the next one they get is going to be connected. Just some Monday afternoon Powerpoint fodder for you all. Now back to work.

 

Is Our Republic Lost?

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Over the weekend I finished Larry Lessig’s most recent (and ambitious) book, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It. Amongst those of us who considered Lessig our foremost voice on issues of Internet policy, his abrupt pivot to focus on government corruption was both disorienting and disheartening: here was our best Internet thinker, now tilting at government windmills. I mean, fix government? Take the money out of politics? Better to treat all that as damage, and route around it, right? Isn’t that what the Internet is supposed to be all about?

Well, maybe. But after the wake up call that was PIPA/SOPA, it’s become clear why Lessig decided to stop focusing on battles he felt he couldn’t win (reforming copyright law, for example), and instead aim his intellect at the root causes of why those battles were fruitless. As he writes in his preface:

I was driven to this shift when I became convinced that the questions I was addressing in the fields of copyright and Internet policy depended upon resolving the policy questions – the corruption – that I address (in Republic Lost).

Lessig, ever the lawyer at heart, presents his book as an argument, as well as a call to arms (more on that at the end). Early on he declares our country ruined, “poisoned” by an ineffective government, self-serving corporations, and an indifferent public. To be honest, it was hard to get through the first couple of chapters of Republic Lost without feeling like I was being lectured to on a subject I already acknowledged: Yes, we have a corrupt system, yes, lobbyists are in league with politicians to bend the law toward their client’s bottom lines, and yes, we should really do something about it.

But Lessig does make a promise, and in the book he keeps it: To identify and detail the “root” of the problem, and offer a prescription (or four) to address it. And yes, that root is corruption, in particular the corruption of money, but Lessig takes pains to define a particular kind of corruption. Contrary to popular sentiment, Lessig argues, special interest money is not directly buying votes (after all, that is illegal). Instead, an intricate “gift economy” has developed in Washington, one that is carefully cultivated by all involved, and driven by the incessant need of politicians to raise money so as to insure re-election.

Lessig calls this “dependency corruption” – politicians are dependent on major donors not only to be elected, but to live a lifestyle attendant with being a US Congressperson.  Lessig also points out how more than half of our representatives end up as lobbyists after serving – at salaries two to ten times those of a typical Congressperson (he also points out that we grossly underpay our representatives, compared to how they’d be remunerated for their talents in the private sector).

Lessig likens this dependency corruption to alcoholism – it “develops over time; it sets a patter of interaction that builds upon itself; it develops a resistance to breaking that pattern; it feeds a need that some find easier to resist than others; satisfying that need creates its own reward; that reward makes giving up the dependency difficult; for some, it makes it impossible.”

In short, Lessig says Washington DC is full of addicts, and if we’re to fix anything – health care, energy policy, education, social security, financial markets – we first have to address our politicians’ addiction to money, and our economic system’s enablement of that addiction. Because, as Lessig demonstrates in several chapters devoted to broken food and energy markets, broken schools, and broken financial systems, the problem isn’t that we can’t fix the problem. The problem, Lessig argues, is that we’re paying attention to the wrong problem.

Lessig’s argument essentially concludes that we’ve created a system of government that rewards policy failure – the bigger the issue, the stronger the lobbyists on one or even both sides, forcing Congress into a position of moral hazard – it can insure the most donations if it threatens regulation one way or the other, this way collecting from both sides. Lessig salts his argument with example after example of how the system fails at real reform due to the “money dance” each congressperson must perform.

It’s pretty depressing stuff. And yet – there are no truly evil characters here. In fact, Lessig makes quite the point of this: we face a corruption of “decent souls,” of “good people working in a corrupted system.”

Despite Lessig’s avowed liberal views (combined with his conservative, Reagan-era past), I could imagine that  Republic Lost could as easily be embraced by Tea Party fanatics as by Occupy Wall Street organizers. He focuses chapters on how “so damn much money” defeats the ends of both the left and the right, for example. And at times the book reads like an indictment of the Obama administration – Lessig, like many of us, believed that Obama was truly going to change Washington, then watched aghast as the new administration executed the same political playbook as every other career politician.

In the final section of his book, Lessig offers several plans to force fundamental campaign finance reform – the kind of reform that the majority of us seem to want, but that never seems to actually happen. Lessig acknowledges how unlikely it is that Congress would vote itself out of a system to which it is addicted, and offers some political gymnastics that have almost no chance of working (running a candidate for President who vetoes everything until campaign finance reform is passed, then promises to quit, for example).

The plan that has gotten the most attention is the “Grant and Franklin Project” – a plan to finance all candidacies for Congressional office through public funds. He suggests that the first fifty dollars of any Federal tax revenue (per person per year) be retained to fund political campaigns, then allocated by each of us as a voucher of sorts. In addition, we’d all be able to commit another $100 of our own money to any candidate we choose. Uncommitted funds go to our parties (if we do not actively wish to use our voucher). Any candidate can tap these resources, but only if that candidate agrees to take only vouchers and $100 contributions (bye bye, corporate and PAC money).  Lessig calculates the revenues of this plan would be well above the billions spent to elect politicians in our current system, and argues that the savings in terms of government pork would pay forward the investment many times over.

Lessig ends his book with a call to action – asking us to become “rootstrikers,” to get involved in bringing about the Grant and Franklin Project, or something like it (he goes into detail on a Constitutional convention as a means to the end, for example). And it’s here where I begin to lose the thread. On the one hand, I’m deeply frustrated by the problem Lessig outlines (I wrote about it here On The Problem of Money, Politics, and SOPA), but I’m also suspicious of any new “group” that I need to join – I find “activist” organizations tend to tilt toward unsustainable rhetoric. I’m not an activist by nature, but then again, perhaps it’s not activism Lessig is asking for. Perhaps it’s simply active citizenship.

I could see myself getting behind that. How about you?

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Other works I’ve reviewed:

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (my review)

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (my review)

The Corporation (film – my review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (my review)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (my review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (my review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (my review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (my review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (my review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (my review)

Thinking Out Loud About Voice Search: What’s the Business Model?

By - February 10, 2012

(image) I don’t have Siri yet – I’m still using my “old” iPhone 4. But I do have my hands on a new (unboxed) Nexus, which has Google Voice Actions on it, and I’m sure at some point I’ll get a iPhone 4GS. So this post isn’t written from experience as much as it’s pure speculation, or as I like to call it, Thinking Out Loud.

But driving into work yesterday I realized how useful voice search is going to be to me, once I’ve got it installed. Stuck in traffic, I tried searching for alternate routes, and it struck me how much easier it’d be to just say “give me alternate routes.” That got me thinking about all manner of things – many of which are now possible – “Text my wife I’ll be late,” “Email my assistant and ask her to print the files for my 11 am meeting,” “Find me a good liquor store within a mile of here,” (I’ve actually done that one using Siri on my way to a friend’s house last weekend).

I’ve written about this before, of course (see Texting Is Stupid, for one example from over three years ago), and I predicted in 2011 that voice was going to be a game changer. It clearly is, but now my question is this: What’s the business model?

I hate to pick on Google, but it’s worth asking the question, given how it dominates mobile search: What happens to the AdWords business model when a large percentage of mobile searches are done using voice? Given we don’t look at our screens while using voice commands (pretty much the whole point, no?), how will Google make money from voice search?

It’s an interesting question, but not for Apple – Apple doesn’t make money through search ads, so it can give voice search away for free, and use it as a benefit of buying and using the hardware device (which is where Apple makes its coin, after all). And from what I can tell, Apple uses Yahoo, Wolfram, Yelp and others to populate Siri’s search answers, not Google. I’m sure there’s a direct reason for that: Google probably wanted some kind of fee from Apple, and I’m guessing Apple had little interest in paying. (I also don’t know if Apple is paying Yahoo, Wolfram or Yelp, if any of you do, please let me know…)

Now, Google does have one model in market that could translate to money in voice search – what it calls “Click to Call.” This is the ability for businesses to integrate direct phone calling into their mobile ads. I don’t know if that model is integreated into Voice Actions, but I’d be surprised if it didn’t show up soon (I can imagine Google’s version of Siri asking “Would you like to call this business now?”). And while that should prove a decent revenue stream, it won’t cover the majority of voice searches. And Google isn’t a company that likes to give away search without a monetization strategy.

What do you think such a strategy might be? Could we even imagine the return of “paid inclusion” – where voice search results are returned based on who pays to be part of the results? Sounds far fetched, but at the right scale, it could work.

I’ve not done much thinking about this, but I bet some of you have. What do you say?

Yahoo Visualizes Its Content CORE

By - February 09, 2012

Yahoo has always been proud of the algorithms that drive its choice of personalized content, but it’s hard to grok exactly what they do behind the scenes to make the magic happen. Today the company released a visualization of its “C.O.R.E.” (Content Optimization and Relevance Engine) technology, and the result is pretty cool. From a release sent to me by Yahoo:

 

  • C.O.R.E. (Content Optimization and Relevance Engine) is a suite of technologies developed by Yahoo! Labs to surface the stories most interesting to you, based on your reading behavior over time.
  • Every hour C.O.R.E. processes 1.2 terrabytes of data in order to learn how a user’s behaviors and interests influence the likelihood of clicking on a specific article. And, every day, C.O.R.E. personalizes 2.2 billion pieces of content for Yahoo! users.
  • Since optimizing with C.O.R.E., Yahoo!’s Homepage click-through rate has increased 300%.
  • Yahoo!’s personalization approach is a clever mix of scientific algorithms and human judgment, as editors have control to override C.O.R.E. at any time, to ensure certain stories are seen.
  • Initially developed within Yahoo! Labs, C.O.R.E. has become a vital tool used throughout the day by editors across the company to bring our users personalized news, first.

The visualization lets you see stories through filters of gender, age, and interest. The image above, for example, shows a male in may age range interested in business and finance. Well worth playing around with, and a very good example of what I call “dependent web” content.

More information on Yahoo’s blog here.